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Is There A Kosher Way to Criticize the Israel Lobby?

Matthew Yglesias ruminates on Wesley Clark’s recent interview that landed him in some Lobby trouble and the disparity between the mostly liberal Jewish community in the US and its more vocal, wealthy and powerful right wing hawk corner, the latter pushing belligerently for war.

Is There A Kosher Way to Criticize the Israel Lobby?

By Matthew Yglesias, The American Prospect January 26, 2007

Retired General Wesley Clark is, like me, concerned that the Bush administration is going to launch a war with Iran. Arianna Huffington spoke to him in early January and asked why he was so worried the administration was headed in this direction. According to Huffington’s January 4 recounting of Clark’s thoughts, he said this: “You just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.”

This, of course, is true. I’m Jewish and I don’t think the United States should bomb Iran, but Thursday night I was talking to a Jewish friend and she does think the United States should bomb Iran. The Jewish community, in short, is divided on the issue. It’s also true that most major American Jewish organizations cater to the views of extremely wealthy major donors whose political views are well to the right of the bulk of American Jews, one of the most liberal ethnic groups in the country. Furthermore, it’s true that major Jewish organizations are trying to push the country into war. And, last, it’s true that if you read the Israeli press you’ll see that right-wing Israeli politicians are anticipating a military confrontation with Iran. (For example, here’s an article about the timing of the selection of a new top dog in the Israeli Defense Forces; Benjamin Netanyahu is quoted as saying that the new leader “will have to straighten the army out, rebuild Israel’s deterrence and prepare the defenses against threats, first and foremost, against Iran.”)

Everything Clark said, in short, is true. What’s more, everybody knows it’s true. The worst that can truthfully be said about Clark is that he expressed himself in a slightly odd way. This, it seems clear, he did because it’s a sensitive issue and he worried that if he spoke plainly he’d be accused of trafficking in anti-Semitism. So he spoke unclearly and, for his trouble, got … accused of trafficking in anti-Semitism.

James Taranto, who writes the hack “Best of the Web” column for the online version of The Wall Street Journal‘s hack editorial page, likened Clark’s views on this to the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Scott Johnson of the influential and moronic right-wing Power Line blog argued that “Clark’s comments are not simply ‘anti-Israel,'” and asked “[i]s it a only a matter only of parochial concern to American Jews that they are now to be stigmatized without consequence in the traditional disgusting terms — terms that used to result in eviction from the precincts of polite society — by a major figure in the Democratic Party?”

Needless to say, Clark did not stigmatize American Jews. Indeed, he went out of his way to note that the American Jewish community is divided on the issue. Michael Barone’s sneering attack on Clark also managed, almost incidentally, to reveal Barone’s own understanding that Clark’s remarks are substantially correct. Barone observed that it’s “interesting to see a Democratic presidential hopeful denounce ‘the New York money people,’ people whom Clark spent some time with in 2003-04.”

And, indeed, it is interesting, for demonstrating the bizarre rules of the road in discussing America’s Israel policy. If you’re offering commentary that’s supportive of America’s soi-disant “pro-Israel” forces, as Barone was, it’s considered perfectly acceptable to note, albeit elliptically, that said forces are influential in the Democratic Party in part because they contribute large sums of money to Democratic politicians who are willing to toe the line. If, by contrast, one observes this fact by way of criticizing the influence of “pro-Israel” forces, you’re denounced as an anti-Semite.

Needless to say, the increasingly ridiculous Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, was swiftly located in order to ply his trademark tactic of accusing people of anti-Semitism that he knows perfectly well aren’t anti-Semites. As The Jewish Week reported, “The ADL leader told Clark that he had ‘bought into conspiratorial bigotry’ that increasingly sees Israel, Jews and American Jewish organizations as the driving force behind U.S. involvement in Iraq and Iran.” What’s more, “Foxman said Clark’s comments are particularly worrisome because of the context, coming in the wake of,” among other things, “a book by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who accused Israel of pushing for war with Iran.”

The context, I would say, is worrisome. “Israel” is not a unitary actor, but clearly some Israelis are pushing for war with Iran. More to the point, many American Jewish organizations are pushing for war with Iran. And before Foxman comes to lock me up, he might want to check out his own outfit’s website, complete with a section on “The Iranian Threat.” Meanwhile, over on AIPAC’s site we can learn about the “escalating threat” from Iran. A group called The Israel Project has an Iran Press Kit page, linking only to alarmist takes on the Iranian nuclear issue and to a hawks-only set of expert sources. (Shockingly, none of these organizations are especially concerned that Israel won’t join the Non-Proliferation Treaty Framework.)

For another example, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs gave Senator John McCain its “Scoop” Jackson Award in December; in his remarks accepting the award, McCain argued that “[t]he path to future success for Israel will not be an easy one, and there will be a number of difficult issues. Foremost on many minds, is, of course, Iran.” He characterized “Tehran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons” as “an unacceptable risk” — language clearly designed to lay the groundwork for war.

With this last bit, we not only see the accuracy of Clark’s remark, but, once again, the stunning hypocrisy of the anti-anti-Semitism brigades. It’s clear that McCain, just like Clark, sees American Jewish organizations as key players in the Iran-hawk movement in the United States, and also that he sees concern for Israeli security as motivating those groups. Nobody, however, is going to label McCain a Jew-hating conspiracy theorist — because, of course, McCain wants to help these groups push the United States into a military confrontation with Iran. Thus, McCain gets an award, and Clark gets called an anti-Semite.

Since Clark would like to have a future in the politics game, he ended up backing down from his remarks, explaining he didn’t mean what he said. Mission accomplished for those who smeared him. But would I ever suggest that Democrats have been unduly timid on the Iran issue because they fear crossing powerful “pro-Israel” institutions? Never. Only anti-Semites think stuff like that.

Copyright © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.


2 comments on “Is There A Kosher Way to Criticize the Israel Lobby?

  1. JollyRoger
    13 February, 2007

    It’s a handy old trick-screech about the way someone said something, and totally avoid actually discussing what they said.

    Chimpletons have it down to a fine art.

  2. peoplesgeography
    13 February, 2007

    Indeed, JollyRoger.

    This piece might interest you if you haven’t already seen it, with thanks to Ressentiment for pointing it out.

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